From the Celtic harp to YouTube: Traditional Irish music



According to tradition, there are three types of Irish melody – suantraí, geantraí and goltraí. Suantraí (lullaby) was a tune that put you to sleep, geantraí caused laughter or merriment, whereas goltraí brought the listener to tears.

Ireland has an ancient and prestigious history of music. In fact, the world’s oldest wood wind instrument, the ‘Wicklow Pipes’ – believed to be over 4,000 years old – was uncovered in Ireland in 2003. The harp has long been considered one of the most ancient and noble of instruments, and is most associated with Turlough O’Carolan a 17th-century blind harper and composer of some of Ireland’s most beloved melodies.

256px-Celtic_harp_dsc05425Today, Irish music features a multitude of instruments including the fiddle, the uilleann pipes, the tin whistle, the bodhrán and the accordion, in addition to less traditional instruments such as the guitar and the keyboard.  Traditional tunes include jigs, reels, hornpipes and planxties, in addition to imported waltzes, polkas, barndances and mazurkas.

The traditional form of singing in Irish, the sean nós or ‘old style’ was first documented in the 16th century but may be much older. It is a largely unaccompanied form of singing, performed primarily through Irish, which is often characterised by nasalisation and heavy ornamentation, particularly at the upper register. For many years, this tradition risked extinction as many of the singers were ageing and young people were not learning the craft. However, a new generation of singers such as Iarla Ó Lionáird (see our earlier post on his rendition of Casadh an tSúgáin, The Twisting of the Hayrope for the movie Brooklyn), Róisín Elsafty and Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola are bringing this ancient tradition to a wider audience.

“The Gloaming” is a collaboration between Ó Lionáird, fiddle virtuosos Martin Hayes and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and American musicians Thomas Bartlett and Dennis Cahill. They embody the elasticity of traditional Irish music, imbuing old melodies with the jazz and contemporary stylings of Bartlett and Cahill. Ó Lionáird’s transcendent interpretation of sean nós classics – lately heard in the film ‘Brooklyn’ – coupled with Hayes’ rapturous strings and the melodic support of Ó Raghallaigh, creates a dazzling effect.


Many Irish bands and singers have made Irish-language recordings of their songs for the album series “Ceol”, which was organized by the Irish language organisation Conradh na Gaeilge as a means of popularising the language. Recently, Ed Sheeran recorded a version of his enormous hit “Thinking Out Loud” in Irish as “Ag Smaoineamh Os Ard” for the 2016 edition.


Coláiste Lurgan, an Irish-language summer school in Galway has also proved that this can be a winning formula. Their Youtube channel – where they regularly post videos where they interpret hit songs in Irish – has received over 20 million views since its beginnings in 2010.

This is proof that the Irish traditions of music and song are alive and well, and new innovations are continuing to bring increased understanding and popularity to these ancient art forms.

Image: Celtic Harp via Wikimedia Commons by David Monniaux licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0